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In re L.T.

Supreme Court of Iowa

March 1, 2019

IN THE INTEREST OF L.T., A.T., AND D.T., Minor Children, K.T., Mother, Appellant.

         On review from the Iowa Court of Appeals.

          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Linn County, Susan Flaherty, Associate Juvenile Judge.

         K.T. seeks further review of an order terminating parental rights.

          Ellen R. Ramsey-Kacena, Cedar Rapids, for appellant.

          Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, John McCormally, (until withdrawal) and Anagha Dixit, Assistant Attorneys General, Jerry Vander Sanden, County Attorney, and Kelly Kaufman, Assistant County Attorney, for appellee State.

          Kimberly A. Opatz of Linn County Advocate, Inc., Cedar Rapids, guardian ad litem for minor children.

          APPEL, Justice.

         In this case, we consider a mother's appeal from the juvenile court's final order terminating her parental rights to L.T., A.T., and D.T. entered twenty months after the evidentiary hearing on the issue. Approximately six months after the evidentiary hearing, the juvenile court granted the State's motion to reopen the record and present additional evidence in support of its petition to terminate parental rights. After receipt of the new evidence, the juvenile court orally stated its intent to terminate parental rights but did not enter a written ruling at that time.

         Shortly after the juvenile court's oral announcement, reasonable efforts toward reunification ceased. A few months later, the mother requested, at a hearing and by motion, reasonable efforts toward reunification pending the juvenile court's final order.

         When more than nineteen months passed from the original hearing without the juvenile court entering a written ruling, the mother moved to reopen the evidence. The mother sought to show that she was sober, was involved in an outpatient program to maintain sobriety, and had obtained stable housing and employment.

         Almost a month after the mother's motion to reopen the evidence, the juvenile court entered a written order terminating the mother's parental rights. On the same day, the court entered another order denying the mother's motions.

         The mother appeals. She challenges the termination order as unlawful. She asserts that the juvenile court abused its discretion by declining to allow her the opportunity to present additional evidence after the passage of nineteen months from the initial termination hearing. The mother also asserts that she was entitled to reasonable efforts toward reunification with her children until the entry of a final written order of termination.

         We transferred the case to the court of appeals. The court of appeals expressed displeasure over the delay in the filing of a timely order but nonetheless affirmed the ruling of the juvenile court. We granted further review. We now vacate the decision of the court of appeals, reverse the order of the juvenile court, and remand the case to the juvenile court for further proceedings.

         I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

         There are three children that are the subject of this case-L.T., A.T., and D.T. D.T., the youngest child, was born in May 2015.

         At birth, D.T. tested positive for amphetamines. The mother was found responsible for child abuse arising from this incident.

         In June 2015, the Iowa Department of Human Services (DHS) received results of a hair test from the mother. She tested positive for amphetamines. At a hearing on June 23, the mother stipulated that the children were children in need of assistance. Based on the stipulation, the court adjudicated the three children as children in need of assistance. During a dispositional hearing the next month, the parties stipulated that the children should remain in their parents' custody with DHS supervision. The court ordered a permanency plan be submitted that would state that the permanency goal is to maintain the children in their parents' custody.

         Use of methamphetamines by the parents in August and September of that year led to the children's emergency removal from the home. The juvenile court placed custody of the children with DHS for purposes of placement in foster care.[1] The court also ordered a permanency plan stating that the permanency goal is reunification with the father.

         In January and May of 2016, the juvenile court entered periodic mandatory review orders. In these orders the court stated that "the permanency goal at this time is family reunification." The order also found that DHS had made reasonable efforts to achieve permanency and recited a litany of services that had been provided, including, but not limited to, parental instruction and counseling; substance abuse help; mental health treatment; medication management; housing referrals; and family safety, risk, and permanency services. In the May order, the court noted that it was informed the State would file a petition to terminate parental rights and directed the State to do the same.

         In June, the State petitioned for termination of the parents' parental rights. The petition relied on four different statutory grounds for termination[2] and an affidavit from a DHS social worker.

         A couple months later, in September, the court entered another permanency review order. This order stated that "the permanency goal at this time is reunification with a concurrent goal of termination of parental rights and adoption." The court again found that DHS was making reasonable efforts to achieve permanency and noted that ...

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